Parasound Halo P 5 2.1-channel D/A preamplifier Page 2

It will be to no one's surprise that the Halo P 5 is supplied with a remote control. Equally unremarkable is the fact that I had no real interest in using it, although I did note that the handset is about as straightforward and non-horrible-looking as such things get. It includes all of the most basic functions—power, volume, muting, source selection—and while one can't use it to adjust the bass and treble per se, the handset does have buttons for Tone Controls On and Off. Subwoofer level and balance—two functions that I believe would be useful from one's listening seat—are absent. (Yes, I know how hypocritical that makes me sound.)

Listening
Straight out of the box, the Parasound P 5 sounded a bit dry; it wasn't lean, per se, nor were its trebles harsh or exaggerated, but the top end had a very slightly chalky quality, and the sound as a whole lacked the natural, abundant note decays I hear from my reference Shindo Masseto preamp. Yet for all that, the Parasound had an engagingly tight and impressively clean sound, with excellent pitch clarity and musical flow.

Over the next few weeks the P 5's textural qualities improved, and the top-end chalkiness I'd noted became a thing of the past. A slightly dry tonal signature endured throughout my time with the Parasound—the lush, liquid, buckets-of-tone sound that I associate with the finest tube preamplifiers was beyond its reach—yet the P 5 played music with enduringly good musical flow and momentum, and superb freedom from distortions of pitch or timing. At no time were those qualities more evident than when I listened to the recent recording, by mandolinist Chris Thile, of his transcriptions of J.S. Bach's Sonata 1 in g and Partita 1 in b for unaccompanied violin (LP, Nonesuch 536377-1). Pitch certainty—and a high level of my engagement with the music—were maintained throughout the wicked-fast Presto of Sonata 1 and the Double of Partita 1, and the double and triple stops in the Allemanda of the latter were remarkably clear, all the while maintaining good texture and color. Right out of the gate, I was impressed.

414para.rem.jpgThe P 5 also played music with what can only be described as surprisingly good color and presence. The exceptional recording of Milhaud's Les Quatre Saisons, played by Ensemble de Solistes des Concerts Lamoureux under the composer's direction (LP, Philips 6504 111), sounded wonderful through the P 5. The first movement's double bass, the playing of which alternates between plucking and bowing, had very good color, heft, and texture; equally well textured and believable were the dark horns of the third movement and the wide-ranging strings of the fourth, the sound of the latter instruments also notable for their clarity of pitch and realistic note attacks (although decays seemed a bit lacking).

The Milhaud recording also has a distinctive spatial characteristic; it is the rare stereo recording that sounds more like spatially nuanced mono, with convincing substance and physical presence, yet with considerable depth and with distinctly audible space between the instruments—which the Parasound reproduced nearly perfectly. The P 5 brought the same unfussy spatial performance to bear on a 1968 recording, by Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra, of Vaughan Williams's Symphony 3 (LP, Angel S-36532), the final movement of which sounded so engagingly pretty that I wound up lifting the needle and playing it over, four times in a row. With the Parasound in place, the distant kettledrum that opens the movement was nicely put across, followed by the even more distant voice of soprano Margaret Price. Then, when the tension of those opening measures came to a close, the sheer beauty of the strings and woodwinds that followed was almost overwhelming, the P 5 conveying far more of the color and texture than I would have expected from a $1095 transistor product. The soundfield had tremendous scale, and equally tremendous depth and image placement—and yet the music making was itself so good that I concentrated not on those sonic details but on the emotional whole. Lovely—and, again, the sort of performance I associate with far more expensive, far more sophisticated gear.

The P 5 also sounded great on an original UK Decca collection of excerpts from Wagner's Götterdämmerung, by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic (LP, Decca SXL 6220). The Halo preamp allowed the combined instrumental and vocal forces to sound entertainingly huge, yet it well maintained the perspective and precision of placement in the sounds of individual singers (and sound effects). Note attacks were splendid—again, there was no audible blunting of impact, just as there was no distorting of the music's drive or momentum—and the strings, in particular, were well textured.

Notwithstanding its fine, realistically colorful way with unamplified music, the Parasound was also enjoyable with edgier fare, including a new reissue of King Crimson's seventh album, Red (LP, Discipline Global Mobile KCLP 7). The shifting guitar and electric-bass patterns in the title song were reproduced with good impact—as is typical of so many King Crimson recordings, this one was made with far less compression on those instruments than on the drum kit—and the P 5 did a great job of allowing the music to sound big. Unexpectedly, a recent, all-acoustic album recorded in 1970 by Neil Young, Live at the Cellar Door (LP, Reprise 535854-1), gave further evidence of the P 5's facility with impact of the louder sort, as it reproduced the very forcefully played piano chords in "Expecting to Fly" with just as much clarity and startle factor as does my more expensive Shindo Masseto.

Because I rely more heavily on LPs than on other sources, I made sure to audition all of the P 5's phono-setup possibilities. From my experiences with the MC settings—both the 100 ohm and 47k ohm loads—I consider them adequate as a leg up for owners just getting into vinyl, but their sound lacked the impact and presence for which a good MC pickup is, or ought to be, known. Additionally, I experienced very slight hum with the MC settings—a shade less with the 100 ohm setting—regardless of ground wiring. The MM input, when preceded by a good-quality step-up transformer, was both humless and far better sounding. And I do mean far: Only after I restored my step-up transformer between the turntable and the Halo P 5 was the sense of touch restored to John Fahey's plainly recorded acoustic guitar on his landmark debut, Blind Joe Death (LP, Takoma 4447/8), or the impact to Art Taylor's drumming in Donald Byrd's "Tanya," from Dexter Gordon's One Flight Up (LP, Blue Note/Cisco 84176). Those differences were profound, and in every instance the addition of a transformer made the direct-in approach sound like a poor substitute.

Digital Sources
A few words regarding the P 5's digital performance: Used with its USB input and compared with my reference Wavelength Proton outboard DAC ($599), the Parasound's built-in DAC had a more extended and somewhat clearer top end. David Rawlings's background vocals in Gillian Welch's "The Way It Goes," from her The Harrow & the Harvest (AIFF file from CD, Acony 1109), were easier to hear through the P 5, with better articulation and more certainty of pitch. For its part, the Wavelength sounded timbrally a little meatier, but also a little more artificially textured. The Parasound DAC was considerably cleaner and free from obvious distortion; one could say that it sounded a little more "hi-fi," yet in this instance that quality was, on the whole, preferable.

The pros and cons tipped in a slightly different direction when I compared the P 5's built-in DAC with Halide Design's outboard DAC HD ($450)—which, in my estimation, remains the affordable USB converter to beat. Especially with 16/44.1 music files, the Halide had more color, more natural texture, more body, and a far deeper, more engaging presentation of space—as with "Wrapped in Grey," from XTC's Nonsuch (AIFF from CD, Geffen GEFD-24474). Through the Halide, Andy Partridge's voice stood in greater relief to its musical surroundings; through the Parasound, the whole of the sound was flatter and more spatially compressed.

Conclusions
Exceptional clarity. Exceptional dynamics. Neutral without being colorless. Very well made and complete for the price. What's not to like?

On paper, prior to its arrival, the Parasound Halo P 5 seemed like an awful lot of product for the money; that impression was borne out in my system, and while there remain many aspects of the P 5 that I did not try, its musical performance in my system was more than merely satisfying. During its time here, the Parasound Halo P 5 replaced a preamp that sells for 14 times its price—while the latter's superiority was never in doubt, neither did I itch to get rid of the former.

This is about as fine a $1095 preamp as I can imagine in 2014. Heartily recommended.

COMPANY INFO
Parasound Products, Inc.
2250 McKinnon Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94124
(415) 397-7100
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